The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2)

“Life is to man, in other words, to will, what chemical re-agents are to the body: it is only by life that a man reveals what he is, and it is only in so far as he reveals himself that he exists at all. Life is the manifestation of character, of the something that we understand by that word; and it is not in life, but outside of it, and outside time, that character undergoes alteration, as a result of the self-knowledge which life gives. Life is only the mirror into which a man gazes not in order that he may get a reflection of himself, but that he may come to understand himself by that reflection; that he may see what it is that the mirror shows. Life is the proof sheet, in which the compositors’ errors are brought to light.”

Arthur Schopenhauer (The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; On Human Nature)

Beyond Creation

In my post, The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 1), I talk about how many of us fail to recognize the significance of the relationship with ourselves, the different aspects that make up this relationship, and how we can use this knowledge to turn our biggest enemy into our biggest ally. It’s difficult work, but doing it is worthwhile and enriches our lives in a beautiful way.

However, utilizing the knowledge of the relationship with ourselves is more than just creating ourselves. It is also accepting and not avoiding ourselves. Meditating on our flaws, contradictions, and inconsistencies, then embracing them. What I’m suggesting is deeper than “self-love“, especially since that term has been bastardized in the modern world.

Taking on the responsibility of developing an integrated and healthy relationship with ourselves is a form of true love and acceptance of all that we are, in our beauty and catastrophe.

The more I write about this topic, the more I discover how much I cannot cover in these blog posts, so I’m going to hone in and just focus on one section of this idea. This post is going to focus on the archetypically negative side of ourselves. The sides of ourselves that many of us like to reject, ignore, and avoid at all costs.

Existence is the positive, the good, and the light. But it is also the negative, the bad, and the darkness. To be a human being is to understand that both the good and bad lies within our soul. Pretending that we are only good (or that we are not bad) ignores half the story and, more often than not, causes more harm than good.

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago)

The human mind is commonly compared to a horse and it’s rider. The horse being the unconscious mind, and the rider being the conscious mind. It’s the rider’s job to direct the horse to a desired goal, similar to the conscious mind to the unconscious mind.

From what I can tell, our psyches are more than one horse and one rider. We have many horses and it is our moral obligation to pay attention to our horses and how they may act. Similar to how people are responsible for their pets.

If we cannot comprehend that we’re dangerous, then that horse is without a rider, so to speak, and it’s free to cause as much meyhem as it will.

We have horses that we purposely try to reject, ignore, and avoid. Since these horses are usually archetypically negative, they are commonly conflated with pain and suffering. However, the structures of suffering are built right into existence and we must learn to contend with it or we’re doomed to chasing phantoms forever.

“Pain and death are part of life. To reject them is to reject life itself.”

Havelock Ellis (1859-1939)

Good Children and Repression

“When one tries desperately to be good and wonderful and perfect, then all the more the shadow develops a definite will to be black and evil and destructive. People cannot see that; they are always striving to be marvellous, and then they discover that terrible destructive things happen which they cannot understand, and they either deny that such facts have anything to do with them, or if they admit them, they take them for natural afflictions, or they try to minimize them and to shift the responsibility elsewhere. The fact is that if one tries beyond one’s capacity to be perfect, the shadow descends into hell and becomes the devil.”

Carl Jung (Visions: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1930–1934)

A fantastic example of repression are in children who consider themselves “good.”

Good children can be spotted as the ones who finish their homework early, are a little shy, always try to help their parents, and maybe even have neat handwriting. Good children strive to be perfect and on most measures may even match up with these extraordinary expectations.

The real insidious danger of the good child lies in other people not thinking anything is wrong with them. From a surface level analysis, it’s easy to conclude that there isn’t anything wrong with these kids. Adults will shift their focus, and attribute most of the problems to children who are causing conspicuous trouble, even though a little trouble is necessary for a healthy psyche.

Since good children are always doing what’s expected of them, they constantly repress their own desires and inner feelings.

This can be from a number of reasons.

Maybe a parent is depressed and overwhelmed. The child notices this and believes that this parent can’t take anymore trouble. So the good child does everything they can to make sure they aren’t the source of anymore trouble, ever.

Or perhaps one parent is a violent angry perfectionist who explodes at any behavior that’s less than perfect.

No matter the reason, a need for excessive compliance is not natural or healthy and should be treated like the danger it really is.

When a child develops a need for excessive compliance, they become over encumbered with secrets and repress their inner wants for the sake of complying with others.

This repression could take the form of psychosomatic symptoms like twitches, sudden emotional outbursts, excessive bitterness, or irritability. The child may not even be able to identify the reason for the psychosomatic symptoms because they have such little familiarity with their own feelings.

The good child does not have access to the privilege of other people being willing or able to tolerate their imperfections. A privilege necessary for a mentally healthy child.

Good children typically do not have the privilege to express their negative emotions and still be loved or accepted by people around them. In a situation like that, it’s no surprise that someone could conclude that the only way they’ll be accepted is through acting good all the time.

The good child may grow to believe that their personal wants and desires are inappropriate.

This causes a detachment from their bodies and emotions. People like this have a difficult time forming healthy relationships with others later in life. Or, as a response to the repression, the good child may give in to their inner desires too much creating a whole new pathology.

Adult life is full of moments when we need to “break the rules” or act in ways that may upset people. Good children end up having issues as they get older, because they tend to follow the rules and try not to upset people. Without either of these abilities, the good child is damned to a life of mediocrity and people pleasing.

The dangers of repression can take many different forms and don’t just apply to good children. Aiming to understand the shadow sides of ourselves is the path to proper maturity.

Proper maturity involves a deep integration of our less than perfect sides as well as our dark sides. Accepting ourselves in our beauty and catastrophe is crucial to building a strong foundation for the relationship with ourselves.

Establishing a Foundation

Human beings are creators through Logos. We create our lives through our speech. We invent worlds and stories through our conversations and live in them. Most of the time we can’t tell the difference between our conversational world and the “real” world. We build relationships through conversation and the relationship with ourselves is no different.

Most people wouldn’t tell their child to lie as much as they can to get what they want. Many of us know, either from personal experience or otherwise, that lying is a terrible long term strategy. If we were to catch someone lying to us, it would be upsetting and we wouldn’t be as willing to trust them in the future. We also know that if we were caught lying to someone else, they would feel the same way about us.

However, there is one person whom we don’t mind lying to and I bet you can guess who it is…

Ourselves.

Healthy relationships are built on honesty. In order to have a healthy relationship with ourselves, we must be able to be honest with ourselves. Honesty is a solid foundation that must be established first before any relationship can be built. If we try to build a relationship without honesty, sooner or later it will all come crashing down.

Honesty comes when we choose to stop lying to ourselves, but in order to do that we need to understand why we lie to ourselves.

We lie to avoid pain.

We love to lie about all of the problematic aspects that take tremendous effort to alter including but not limited to, our careers, relationships, health, habits, or ideologies.

It’s easier to attempt to elicit sympathy from others and ourselves than be honest with our inadequacies. The truth is we could change these things about our lives, but we lie and say we can’t. The best part is no one can call us on our bluff because we are lying to ourselves! Modern people have learned to avoid responsibility, even though adopting it provides us with meaning.

We lie to think well of ourselves.

We lie to not feel inadequate.

We lie because we are angry with people we are supposed to love and the matters we are angry about are petty.

We lie because it’s easy.

We lie because telling the truth makes us responsible.

We lie because if we don’t it will be ourselves holding us back and nothing or no one else.

As long as we understand the drives within us, then maybe we could see past the lies and look at our lives honestly. While the lying satiates us in the present, we will be forced to deal with the truth later. We can choose to confront our lies willingly, or let them take us unexpectedly when we are older. When we confront them willingly, we prove ourselves to be braver and establish a solid foundation to build the bravery upon. That bravery now has the freedom to grow into something much bigger.

No matter which choice we make, it will be painful. The idea that freedom is on the other end of suffering is a tragedy. Everyone deals with their own tragedy of life in their own way and lying to ourselves isn’t the only trick up our sleeve. This can be different for each individual and I recommend looking into methods of coping with the tragedy of life. I wrote a little bit about other methods we use to deal with our own tragedy in my post Proclivity for Comfort.

Here are some of the popular maneuvers that we use to lie to ourselves:

Distraction & Addiction

This can look like porn, news, drugs, work, etc. I go a little deeper about distraction in Proclivity for Comfort.

Manic Cheeriness

Repressed sadness can often display as intense happiness. The rejection of negative or sad emotions is so deep that we don’t let ourselves feel any sadness at all resulting in an overly happy affect.

Irritability

Being irritated is a fantastic indicator that something is wrong. However, general irritability is a cover up for unspecified issues. Honing in on elevated articulation is key for combating general irritability.

Denigration

Destructivly critiquing ourselves or others. Any fool can tear something down, but it takes substantial effort to critique then offer a solution. Most of the time, denigration is misdirected energy. Talking shit helps no one, focus on what really needs fixing.

Censoriousness

Being over critical of ourselves or other people is another sign that we are misguiding our efforts. Usually, it’s easier to find the mistakes in everything else, rather than fixing the fault where it really matters.

Defensiveness

Defensiveness comes when we have something to prove. We only feel like we need to prove something if we feel like what we are isn’t what we would like to show. If we understood what we are, accepting both our strengths and weaknesses, then maybe we would lose the need to prove we are more than what we are.

Cynicism & Dispair

These come with the loss of naïveté. When we first encounter more chaos than we can process, we inevitably lose our childlike view of the world. Suddenly, not everyone is a friend and life is no longer fun and games. While it’s easy to ride that train straight to Hell, true wisdom and freedom comes from integrating our childlike wonder with our newfound understanding of malevolence and destruction. Keep the child alive in us, but let the adult really run the show.

Utilizing Anxiety

“We should not try to ‘get rid’ of a neurosis, but rather to experience what it means, what it has to teach, what its purpose is.”

Carl Jung (Civilization in Transition)
Enlightenment through Anxiety – Big thanks to Academy of Ideas

Before we get into using anxiety to our advantage, let’s discuss why we get anxiety in the first place.

“The distinctive characteristic of the human being, in contrast to the merely vegetative or the merely animal, lies in the range of human possibility and in our capacity for self-awareness of possibility. Kierkegaard sees man as a creature who is continually beckoned by possibility, who conceives of possibility, visualizes it, and by creative activity carries it into actuality.” 

Rollo May (The Meaning of Anxiety)

Human beings have a special capacity to project possible scenarios into the future. We can think about how events could play out without actually having to act them out in real life. A lot of this type of processing happens in our prefrontal cortex, I talk about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind. This gives us a huge advantage when it comes to survival and undoubtedly a huge contributor to our reign over the animal kingdom.

But it’s not without a price.

Choosing which potential projection to bring into reality is how we create our lives, but it’s also one of the sources of our anxiety. In this way, humans must contend with their freedom like no other animal must. We ask questions that other animals cannot ask themselves. Which potential reality is best for me? Which potential reality will bring me danger? What do I do about potential threats in the future?

Søren Kierkegaard, renown Danish philosopher, suggests the escape from a life of passivity, stagnation, or mediocrity lies in our willingness to attend, what he calls, The School of Anxiety.

Kierkegaard believes anxiety has two sides to it.

One side is demonic and can ruin our lives. This is the side we traditionally think of when we think about anxiety.

The other is constructive and guides us towards a development of the Jungian Self. Anxiety can act as directions in the journey of circumambulation.

Most people advise to follow one’s dreams, Kierkegaard advises to follow one’s anxiety. Avoiding and rejecting our anxiety leaves us blind and frozen. Our anxiety gives us a glimpse into which possible scenarios we ought to take. Anxiety can tell us what to direct our energy towards. It lets us know what we really find important.

“The capacity to bear anxiety is important for the individual’s self-realization and for his conquest of his environment. Every person experiences continual shocks and threats to his existence; indeed, self-actualization occurs only at the price of moving ahead despite such shocks. This indicates the constructive use of anxiety”

Rollo May (The Meaning of Anxiety)

As May suggests, moving forward through our anxiety is the way to a greater version of ourselves. Greatness lies on the other side of anxiety, as long as we are willing to push ahead.

Unfortunately, much of the common attitude towards anxiety is to reject or avoid it. Having anxiety is seen to be a problem that we “shouldn’t” have and feeling negative emotion has been made to be “bad” & “wrong” in modern society. This is because the constructive elements of anxiety are not easily visible to the masses.

This rejection and avoidance are so deep that some people would even claim to not desire a greater life. When our comfort and security are more appealing than the anxiety that lurks in the unknown, resignation of this nature becomes common practice. This is precisely why the trap of passivity, stagnation, and mediocrity lies in the rejection of anxiety.

When we refuse to move into the possibilities which make us anxious, we sentence the side of us seeking self-realization and a greater life to death. This isn’t a clean death either, it’s slow and sloppy. Repressing this side of ourselves breeds a violent shadow and I would go as far to say that it is like repressing the will to life itself. The tension within ourselves created from willingly seeking self-realization or circumambulation is what gives our lives meaning and stimulates the deepest parts of ourselves.

In order to access the constructive parts of anxiety, we first have to understand that we can always take action, even if we are enveloped with anxiety.

Believing that we have to get rid of our anxiety before we can act puts us at a serious disadvantage for a couple of reasons. It facilitates procrastination and it can lead to a serious dependence on drugs or alcohol.

Holding on to the idea that we need to remove anxiety to act makes us weak.

The next thing we need to understand to access the constructive parts of anxiety is understanding that no one can do this for us except for ourselves.

Realizing that nothing in my life was ever going to change unless I did something to make it change was one of the most anxiety-inducing, but empowering realizations I’ve ever had. I was able to switch my Locus of Control. This realization helped me see the constructive side to anxiety.

The possibilities which stress us out are precisely what we need to pay more attention to. The anxiety is an opportunity to exercise our divine abilities, it’s the call of the hero’s journey.

“One of the most important [revelatory] moments is when the client grasps that no one is coming. No one is coming to save me; no one is coming to make life right for me; no one is coming to solve my problems. If I don’t do something, nothing is going to get better. The dream of a rescuer who will deliver us may offer a kind of comfort, but it leaves us passive and powerless. We may feel if only I suffer long enough, if only I yearn desperately enough, somehow a miracle will happen, but this is the kind of self-deception one pays for with one’s life as it drains away into the abyss of unredeemable possibilities and irretrievable days, months, decades.”


Nathaniel Branden (1930-2014)

Enhancing our levels of articulation is another constructive and effective way of coping with anxiety. We experience anxiety when we find ourselves in too much chaos. When things don’t work out the way we expect, our brain responds by trying to prepare for whatever potential danger is lurking around the corner.

Let’s say we’re pre-med, but we get an F on a test. When we recieve that F, we are thrown out order into the domain of chaos because we aren’t sure what the F symbolizes.

Did we just get one question on the test wrong? Did we just forget to study a concept? Did we not properly learn the prerequisite material from the last class? Do we need to change our lifestyle choices? Are we incapable of learning this information? Are we not good enough to get into medical school? Are we too stupid to take this class? Are we even good enough to pursue anything bigger than us?

It’s easy for these questions to spiral out of control, because we don’t know exactly where the error lies. Maybe we just forgot a concept, but maybe we might not even be cut out for our goals at all! Anxiety comes from our mind trying to prepare for all of those scenarios at once. Our threat detection systems in our body are put into overdrive and that makes it difficult to do a lot of things. However, once we specify what we are able to prepare for, the anxiety immediately begins to subside. If there was some way of knowing exactly where the error was, then there’s no need to prepare for everything all at once.

Enhancing our levels of articulation helps us direct our energy towards something definitive, which keeps anxiety at bay, rather than letting our minds run while trying to plan a new career path, prepare for a panther attack, and an alien invasion all at the same time.

We will constantly have to choose between avoiding or moving forward. What will aid us in moving forward isn’t wisdom, intelligence, or even new information. It is the integration of the Jungian Shadow. Creating a relationship with ourselves which captivates the sides of ourselves we tend to reject, ignore, and avoid will provide a steady mechanism that can impel us to act even when our reason tries to stop us. Sometimes our instincts are wiser than our evolved executive cognition. Accepting the sides of us which yearn for chaos gives us the advantage in utilizing our anxiety.

Life is too short to not take the bold risks a fully lived human life requires.

“For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is – to live dangerously!”

Friedrich Nietzsche (The Gay Science)
Categories
Education Productivity

Active Recall and Spaced Repetition

“The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future.”

Peter C. Brown (Make It Stick)

Minimum Effective Dose

The MED or Minimum Effective Dose is the smallest amount of input for a desired outcome. I first came across the idea of the minimum effective dose when I was reading Tim Ferriss. He gives the example of boiling water. When you boil water, you add heat until the water boils. Adding more heat doesn’t make the water “more boiled”, so it would be a waste of resources to continue to add heat once the water is boiled. The amount of heat required to boil the water is the MED. Tim was obsessed with finding MEDs for exercises to trigger hormone cascades in the body to produce specific results. Tim is a don’t-do-more-kettlebell-swings-than-absolutely-necessary type of guy and applying that idea to everything makes life way easier and does wonders for our productivity. If we aren’t doing extra work, then we have more time and energy to do other things that are important to us. Our energy and attention are finite, so using minimum necessary force is in our best interest if we want to get more things done. It’s also a widely practiced Eastern virtue for many different reasons, it’s much to better to get the same results with less effort.

“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.”

Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)

I like to think of learning as broken up into 2 parts: Understanding & Remembering

Understanding is to perceive an intended meaning. A good test to see if you have correctly internalized that meaning is being able to teach it to someone else and answer questions they have on the subject.

Renown American theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, is known for many things in the world of science, but to us study geeks he’s the brilliant mastermind behind the Feynman Technique. His technique is based on the pretty simple idea that “we thoroughly understand something when we can explain it to a five year old“. If we can simplify complex ideas into elementary speech, then we have a truly deep understanding of those said ideas. Using our sophisticated understanding of a topic, we can carefully discern which parts are deemed unnecessary for an accurate conceptualization. If we don’t understand it well enough, we’ll have trouble explaining it to someone else in a simple way. This is how I was able to grow my skills quickly as a math tutor. I would constantly be explaining complex ideas in simple ways which gave me an opportunity to fine tune my understanding of the subject.

If you want to test your understanding, using the Feynman Technique is a fantastic way to see where you stand. I’ll go over other techniques for testing understanding in future posts, but one more noteworthy technique is Scoping the Subject. Scoping the subject is great for setting up an initial framework when learning new material.

To scope the subject, flip through whatever material that needs to be studied that day and pay attention to headings, bold or italicized words, words that don’t seem familiar, and any questions that are presented in the material. Start writing down what is already known about each concept/fact or start writing questions for concepts/facts that aren’t familiar. This gives our brains a fantastic starting point. Now when we study the material, our brains are going to be looking to answer the questions that came up while we were scoping the subject. We are delicate creatures and our minds need purpose. Scoping the subject gives our study session little landmarks. There are many ways to scope a subject, but I recommend creating a Mind Map. I go in-depth about mind maps and other note-taking techniques in my last post here.

   Here are a few questions to ask when testing understanding:

  • What did I just learn?
  • What are the key points?
  • Can I rephrase this in my own words?
  • Does this make sense?
  • Can I explain this to a 5 year old?

Remembering, in terms of learning and studying, is the ability to recall or recognize information that was encoded in the past. For most exams and metrics, we are expected to remember and synthesize information that we’ve previously been exposed to and the best way to do that is practice.

I’ll go into detail another time about MEDs for understanding, but as for remembering the MED lies in Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. I’ll break down each of these terms, explain the ideas the lay the foundation for why they work, and suggest different actionable techniques that can be used to learn everything and never forget.

Active recall is the scientifically most efficient and effective way to study anything. Active recall basically means testing yourself. It’s doing activities that force you to bring up the information out from the depths of your mind. When you practice active recall, you move slower (as in you cover less content), but you are less likely to forget the material that you do go over and your understanding of it will be much richer than if you used other methods.

The Forgetting Curve

Active recall and spaced repetition is nested in an idea known as The Forgetting Curve, coined by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus back in the 19th century. The forgetting curve illustrates transience – the fact that our minds forget information over time.

Ebbinghaus : Drawn Like a Child (2020) – Christopher S. Mukiibi

When we first learn something, we slowly forget it over time unless we are forced to recall that information again. Every recall slows down our forgetting rate and the amount of information that can be forgotten becomes less and less. The further we are on the forgetting curve, the harder it is to recall the information but the stronger that connection becomes. My graph isn’t drawn to scale lol but the forgetting curve mimics something like this. For all you nerds out there, here’s the equation Ebbinghaus based his forgetting curve from:

You can graph this and see for yourself if you’d like

The forgetting curve can be proven by our knowledge of 2+2=4. I love using the 2+2 example with my students because most of us confidently know that 2+2 is 4. This is because we’ve had to recall 2+2 so many times that it’s made a permanent home in our long term memory.

When we first learned what 2+2 was, our brain created a neural pathway specifically made for 2+2 is 4 and every time we need to know what 2+2 is we send an electrical impulse through that pathway. The neurons in our brain are so specific, we create pathways in our brain for literally everything we do. We have more neurons in our brain than stars in the milky way galaxy! The first few times it’s going to be difficult to recall the information, but that is because the neural pathway for 2+2 is weak. Every time we fire that neural pathway, our brains decide that this specific pathway is useful for survival and it reinforces the pathway so it’s easier accessible for further use.

The forgetting curve is also supported by Neural Pruning and Long-Term Potentiation, the biological basis for encoding and retaining memory. Basically, neural pruning is our brain removing “useless” information over time to “free up space” for more “useful” information which gets strengthened through long-term potentiation. Our brains decide what’s useful and useless based on how often we have to use that information. Our brain thinks as long as we use it often then we need it for survival, and our brain is only interested in survival. It’s not so concerned with the other things we tend of value.

In a sense, the forgetting curve outlines our neural pruning rate. Once something is considered useful, then it’s strengthened (more information is retained) if it’s used multiple times over time through long-term potentiation. This is why active recall used in conjunction with spaced repetition is the most efficient and effective way to learn new information. We trick our brain into thinking that it needs this new information for survival and we use our in-built mechanisms to bring that information to the front of the line.

Ebbinghaus believed that stronger minds can retain information for longer periods of time, and thus their forgetting curve would be slower. This was the basis for his idea of Strength of Memory. We can strengthen our memory so it’s easier for us to remember information over time. I was pretty excited to read about this because it’s proof that once we become better at studying and learning we get to actually put in less work as time goes on. It’s comforting to know that the toughest times are right now and things get easier later. At least with studying and information retention, I know that’s true as long as I keep using my brain.

Active Recall vs. Passive Learning

In my opinion, the easiest way to think of Active Recall is by pulling out the information from the depths of your brain. It’s firing the neuron sequence that’s specific to the information you are trying to learn, and like the forgetting curve suggests, the more we fire that neuron sequence, the stronger that neural connection is. The stronger the neural connection is, the longer we retain the information. Passive learning is relying on cues or other aids to help pull up the information, this can also be known as recognition. I talk a little bit about the difference between recall and recognition in the 2nd part of my The Brain vs. The Mind post. Passive learning is a lot easier to practice than active recall, but it is so much less effective.

Examples of Active Recall

Practice problems. Practice problems. Practice problems. Question Based Learning (QBL) is the best way to encode information. By doing problems, our brains are framing the concepts in concrete examples. This helps us understand why we need to learn certain facts or ideas, and that why is the key to truly internalizing the information.

However, not all questions are created equal. When it comes to study efficiency and effectiveness:

Multiple Choice Questions < Fill in the Blank < Free Response

Free response problems are the most difficult, but that challenge is precisely what we need to develop. The idea of challenge being what we need to develop is known as Opponent Processing. Free response questions are least likely to give us cues to use recognition to retrieve the information, which allows us to solely rely on our recall ability.

Fill in the blank problems (without a word bank) can provide a similar experience, but the nature of the problems provide a context that allows for recognition to carry us part of the way through.

Multiple choice problems are the least effective questions to use for active recall because the incorrect options will point us in the direction of the correct answer. Additionally, as we learn we may unconsciously associate the incorrect answer choices as triggers for the right answer. Multiple choice problems provide the highest probability of recognition as the pathway to retrieve information rather than recall, and that can fool us into thinking that we understand something when we actually don’t.

This isn’t to say that multiple choice questions don’t have their place – they are extremely useful, but as a form of an active recall study technique, they fall short. If all you have are multiple choice problems, don’t throw them out! They can still be used to cover a multitude of topics. When answering a multiple choice question – answer the question but ask a few other questions too:

  • Why are the other choices incorrect?
  • What are they other choices?
  • Which topics do they relate to?
  • How are they different from the correct choice?
  • What is the opposite or inverse of this question?
  • What are some questions that could be related to the other answer choices?
  • What are the opposite or inverse of those questions?

Asking ourselves these series of questions will help us suck the juices, so to speak, from each question. Using this method could make multiple choice questions more effective than free response, but keep in mind, it’s all about how much effort we have to put in to pull up that information. The more effort required, the stronger than neural pathway gets developed and the slower we forget!

Running through it in your mind. I love doing this, because it’s low friction, it’s quick, it’s easy, and I can do it everywhere at almost anytime. Remember, the whole objective is to just get the neurons firing so if you’re just sitting in a waiting room you can ask yourself a question, you can answer it in your head, and it’ll have the same effect! I did this all the time in EMT school and one of my students practices this method as his primary method of studying for his EMT school. Don’t worry, he knows his stuff well!

Including it in a creative project. I forgot where I’ve heard this, but one of the best way to encode information to long term memory is to utilize it in a creative project. Creating something with that information will create a huge number of unique connections and that gives us many different neural pathways to retrieve the information.

I can personally vouch for this, every time I use information in a creative project I feel like I understand it on a much deeper level. I see this happen with my girlfriend and her students as well! Doing something creative with information is an opportunity to put the new info in different contexts. We get to test it out and see why it’s useful or important. No surprise though, when I use new info in any project I end up learning way more about it in the process and the emotional impact of learning these new things helps it stick with me.

Explaining it to someone else. Also known as, The Feynman Technique. According to acclaimed physicist Richard Feynman, if you can explain it to a five year old, then you truly understand the idea. Explaining things to someone else also lets you see if you have any gaps in your knowledge. This is a fantastic reviewing technique and it’s the reason why I tutoring comes to naturally to me now. When I first started tutoring, it was difficult because my own knowledge wasn’t complete, but when I started explaining things to other people I found where my knowledge holes were, filled them, and now most of the concepts I help my students with are second nature.

Using the concepts to solve a problem. This is similar to practice problems, but it doesn’t have to be an explicit discrete question. When we solve the problems, we see the reasons why knowing something is important and that reason drives us to make strong neural connections. If something is important or useful to know, then we are going to want easy access to it and solving problems is the catalyst to make it all possible.

Creating a mind map. This is a fantastic method for getting ideas out when scoping a subject. Creating the mind map helps with retention because it utilizes the new information in a creative project, but it also allows us to pull out all the information we know related to the subject. There’s the active recall element, it’s all about firing those neurons! This technique only works with the book closed, most active recall methods are done with the book closed. Making a mind map while looking at the textbook defeats the purpose. Creating the mind map organizes the information in our minds. I talk about scoping the subject, creating mind maps and other forms of information capture/externalization in my post about Note-Taking.

Use systemic consolidation or systemic expansion to deepen understanding. I also talk about this in my post on Note-Taking. Systemic consolidation is a method designed to emphasize active recall while simultaneously creating a study resource.

THIS IS NOT SIMPLY REWRITING YOUR NOTES.

It involves “shrinking down” any notes that you have taken onto a smaller piece of paper. I recommend consolidating a months worth of notes into one notecard. It may seem impossible, but that challenge is the active recall element of this method. The small space forces you to examine what absolutely can’t be left out targeting the high yield information. This processes activates the filters in your mind that help you distinguish the different concepts from each other.

Systemic expansion is also a method designed the emphasize active recall, but in this process we flesh out our ideas rather than trim the fat. Systemic expansion is what I practice when I make my blog posts. When I first get an idea, it’s usually some one line small note in my notes app on my phone, but because I’m interested in teaching individuals I expand on that thought through many different mediums. The information starts in my notes app, then I move it to OneNote, which helps me organize the information a little better and I expand on it there. Once I have that higher articulated version of the information, I then expand even further in a blog post. Each of the ideas fleshed out in a blog post are then added to the book that I’m trying to write and the courses that I teach. The idea is that my understanding becomes deeper and deeper with each iteration of expansion.

Flashcards. Ahh, the tried and true method of the ages. I used to hate flashcards when I was younger, but now that I know a thing or two about studying I can see that flashcards are the way to go. Putting a question on the frontside of the card and the answer on the backside is a fantastic way to trigger active recall. The thing about flashcards is that they’re painful to get through if you don’t know the material well, but the genius of this method lies in that pain. When we feel pain, we remember things much more easily. Our brains don’t know the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat, so when we get a question wrong our body and mind will respond to that as a threat. When we flip the card to reveal the answers, our mind makes it a point to remember that just in case the threat comes back. I can go on for a while about flashcards, but know this – high quality flashcards can cover weeks of information in a matter of hours.

Make a connection to your personal life. Connecting things to our personal lives give the information an emotional charge and the more emotion we can attach to things, the easier they are to remember. Learning happens once we bring the abstract down to Earth, I like to do this in my classes. Whenever I explain an idea, I try my best to accompany it with a quick and apparent example in the real world. Don’t be afraid to make it ridiculous too, the crazier the connections the easier it will be to remember. I recommend making multiple connections to your life. If you have multiple access points to that information, then it will be easier to access especially in high pressure situations.

Review questions at the beginning and end of a study session. Active Recall is most effective when it’s done at the beginning and end of the study session. Reviewing past material at the beginning of a session prevents us from forgetting it, further solidifies the information into our long term memory, and primes our minds for the new information to come.

Putting the new information in context will also help with deepening understanding. Reviewing all the new information learned at the end of a study session also helps with retention by at least 15% (according to Spitzer), with literally no extra studying. The extra 2-5 minutes spent at the beginning and end of a study session can dramatically reduce the number of study sessions you’ll need and improves understanding. My girlfriend is currently using this method to study for the MCAT. Since she hasn’t learned all the material she needs to know for the test she has to balance reviewing old material and learning new material. To achieve this balance, she reviews all the questions that are due for spaced repetition at the beginning of the session which recalls all the past topics and places the new information in context. After reviewing those questions, she learns the new material (through other active recall methods as well) and turns that new information into practice questions which she reviews at the end of the session. Studying this way provides intentional structure to our sessions that maximize our results.

Examples of Passive Learning

There are so many different methods to studying. Each having their pros and cons. The problem with so many methods of studying is that many students love to pick the methods that appear effective and feel productive, but actually waste our time and triple our workload. Let’s start with my most despised method.

Rereading Notes or Reading the Textbook. I cannot begin to explain how much I hate this method. It seems like rereading notes or reading the textbook would be the right thing to do. After all, the information can all be found in our notes and textbook right?

A lot of students pick this method of their primary study method, but that’s working under the assumption that all we need to do is simply expose ourselves to the information. When we are studying for exams or trying to learn new things, we have to be able to recall and synthesize the information. The more difficult the exam or project, the higher the level of sophistication is required to recall or synthesize. Simply rereading notes or the textbook keeps the depth of understanding at a baseline. Only when the mind uses the information to solve problems or make connections is when things get interesting. So rather than rereading notes and reading the textbook, utilize any other active method of studying. Only use the notes or a textbook as a resource if clarification is needed. This goes for PowerPoints as well, try to only use them for clarification.

Highlighting. This one drives me crazy too. This isn’t to say that highlighting doesn’t have it’s place. I love highlighting when I read and research, but highlighting is not something to do when you are studying for an exam or a class. There way too many problems with highlighting, but only I’ll outline a couple.

1) Highlighting can easily lead to over-highlighting and it’ll be too difficult to come back later to see what is actually important. This leads to time and energy wasted just trying to figure out what needs to be learned.

2) Even if we don’t over-highlight, we have to reread the highlights which instantly doubles our work. But the reality is that we have to read outside the highlights too, so we can understand the importance of the highlight with context, which can easily triple our workload. While highlighting feels productive, it’s a trap that gives us more work that we need. Don’t give into the good feelings of pseudo-productivity, practice studying actively and keep the work at a minimum.

Only looking over solutions to problems. Not gonna lie, I did this all the time in college. Whenever I’d study for an exam I would look over my practice test, but I wouldn’t actually work through the problems. I would just look at the solutions and thinking to myself “yeah, that makes sense. I totally got this.” I can assure you that I did not “got this”. Yeah, the solutions made sense when I looked at them and I could easily recognize the concepts and practices, but the exams I took were testing my recall or synthesis abilities, not recognition. Practicing recall and synthesis enhances recognition abilities, but practicing recognition does not enhance recall and synthesis abilities. Just looking at the question does not encode the concepts. Working out the problems proves that you know how to do the problem on every level of our perception.

Listening to lectures in while sleeping. This is not how learning works. This just makes it harder to go to sleep. Additional unnecessary extraneous load is burdensome on the mind. We learn when we’re awake, we consolidate when we are sleeping.

Summarizing. Summarizing doesn’t seem to be an effective study technique for exams that require recall and synthesis as well. While a student will receive some benefit from summarizing a lecture after they’ve just heard it or summarizing a chapter after they’ve just read it, this method won’t help with inference making and incorporating the information into other higher-level cognitive tasks. If we were to summarize, we’d understand the big picture (which is helpful) but we will inevitably miss some of the details and nuances.

Spaced Repetition

“Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don’t get the rapid improvements and affirmations you’re accustomed to seeing from massed practice.”

Peter C. Brown (Make It Stick)

Every time we recall information, it gets easier to recall and we forget less of it! We are also able to recall less often because our rate of forgetting is lower. This is the idea behind Spaced Repetition, which makes our studying more effective and efficient.

The point of being efficient is to get better results without having to do as much work and there is no better to do less work than to actually do less work! We aren’t designed to workout the same parts of our body all the time. If we do too many bicep curls or deadlifts or run too many miles at once, we could risk injury. We aren’t machines, humans require a refractory period, a time to relax and recover. This isn’t to say, we shouldn’t be diligent and work at something every day, but we should keep in mind that there are optimal times to work on a certain parts of ourselves. We shouldn’t try to fire the same neural pathway every second of every day. We need to give our brains time to establish and strengthen the connections.

Needs Time (2020) – Christopher S. Mukiibi

I like to think of learning like a laying a brick wall.

Each layer of the brick wall is a little tidbit of information and when we want to build a wall we have to lay each layer down in a timely manner. We place a layer of bricks, add some mortar, wait for it to dry, then add the next layer. We can’t just keep adding layers on top of layers without waiting for the mortar to dry. If we do, the entire wall easily collapses and if it doesn’t collapse, the wall will at least be crooked. Our knowledge works the same way. We have to learn a little bit of information, wait for our minds to build and strengthen the necessary connections, then build upon that knowledge once we understand the previous information. The question then becomes –

How do we know how long to wait before we build the next layer?

This is where Spaced Repetition comes in handy. The Forgetting Curve suggests that we strengthen our neural connections in direct proportion to how difficult it is to recall that information. So it would be in our best interests to recall the information right before we forget it. It’ll be hard and it takes the most effort, but it’ll give us the strongest connections with the least number of study sessions.

Thankfully, this type of knowledge has been around for awhile and there are a few established study methods and resources that Spaced Repetition and Active Recall into account. These are the best two in my opinion –

Leitner System – coined by the German Scientist Sebastian Leitner, it’s a system that’s used to practice flashcards that has integrated the principles of active recall and spaced repetition. The flashcards are sorted into groups and the different groups are reviewed over different time intervals.

The system is simple, yet effective. Initially, the student would start with all of the flashcards in Box 1. If they get the question correct, then they get to put the flashcard in the next box. If they get the question wrong, they put the question back in Box 1. Each box is reviewed in spaced intervals. When I practice the Leitner System, I review Box 1 every day, Box 2 every 3 days, Box 3 every week, Box 4 every two weeks, and Box 5 every month. I keep a study calendar that lets me know which days to study which boxes because it’s not worth the trouble remembering. This gradual increase will help me focus on the questions I don’t know and stop using valuable time on questions I already understand. The time intervals don’t have to be broken up exactly like this, I recommend adjusting your review schedule to the time frame that suits you.

Here is a variant, the incorrect answers don’t have to be sent back to Box 1. They can be sent back to the previous box. Adjust the systems as you see fit, just maintain the principles of active recall and spaced repetition.

Anki – every good pre-med already knows all about Anki lol. Anki is a study app that automates the Leitner System, but with some added benefits. When you answer a question, the app asks how difficult it was for you to recall the information. You can answer easy, good, hard, or again and depending on your answer, the app automatically sorts the questions for you. The easier the question was for you, the later Anki will ask you again. Making great Anki cards is a skill all in itself and requires its own 20 hours to get used to but I think the effort is worthwhile. Anki is cross-platform so it’s easily accessible. It’s free for most devices which is nice, but it costs a pretty penny to get it on iOS. It’s a little expensive, but it’s worth the investment when you get to knock out questions in the nooks and crannies of the day. Rather than scrolling through the same Instagram or Twitter feed, you can knock out 1 or 2 questions when you’re in line at the store or waiting in a restaurant.


When it comes down to it, the method we choose to study with doesn’t matter as long as we have the principles of active recall and spaced repetition integrated into our practices. Studying is all about firing the neural pathway in our minds and strengthening the connections that we want. Here’s a list of some peer-reviewed academic studies done on study strategies that support the claims in this blog post in case you wanna look deeper into this! Big thanks to Dr. Ali Abdaal for the curating!

Dunlosky et al 2013 – [Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. – PubMed – NCBI](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2…)

Karpicke 2016 – [A powerful way to improve learning and memory](http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/…)

Spitzer 1939 – http://www.gwern.net/docs/spacedrepet…

Butler 2010 – http://sites.utexas.edu/mdl/files/201…

Karpicke & Blunt 2011 – [Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping | Science](http://science.sciencemag.org/content…)

Categories
Lifestyle Productivity

The Mamba Mentality

“To sum up what Mamba Mentality is, it means to be able to constantly try to be the best version of yourself. That is what the Mentality is -it’s a constant quest to try to better today than you were yesterday.”

Kobe Bryant (1978 – 2020)

The Mamba Mentality is a highly effective way of developing your skills. Kobe Bryant, aka Black Mamba, developed this method after his first season playing basketball. The Mamba Mentality is a tested and proven way to bring you from the bottom of the dog pile to the Greatest of All Time.

A trip through time…

When Kobe Bryant was about 10 or 11 he was in a summer basketball league. During this season, he scored a grand total of 0 points for the ENTIRE season. Naturally, he was crushed and his father told him it doesn’t matter if you score 0 or 60 points I’m going to love you either way. This gave Kobe the confidence the needed to confront failure powerfully but he didn’t want to score 0 points. After that season, he spent his days focused on the fundamentals while his teammates relied on their athleticism. Eventually, practicing of the fundamentals caught him up to his teammates and his athleticism followed shortly after. By the age of 14, Kobe was the best basketball player in the state regardless of age.

This sounds like an incredible accomplishment but Kobe says it’s simple math: If you are playing for 2-3 hours every day and everyone around you is playing 1-2 hours twice a week, who’s going to be better? Skill development is not only a function of time, but time is a necessary ingredient.

There are two main pillars of the mamba mentality:

  • Show up and work every day, no matter what.
  • Rest at the end not in the middle

Incremental Consistent Progress

Putting work in every single day, even just for a few hours, is the edge you need over your competition. The sad fact of the matter is, not everyone will be giving their 100%. So, if you are giving your 100%, then you can’t lose. And part of that effort is showing up every. single. day. no. matter. what. By the time a years rolls around, or even 6 months, the results are noticeably different. I’ve seen this idea represented in Jeff Olson’s The Slight Edge and I’ve tried it for myself.

I apply this pillar of the mamba mentality to my learning. I learn something new every single day no matter what. It brings a child-like bliss into my life and I become a better person every day. After a few years, people have no considered me an expert in things that I would never dare claim expertise in. Apply this everywhere and watch the unimaginable unfold.

Restful rest vs. Stressful Rest

The difference between restful rest and stressful rest lies in the second pillar of the Mamba Mentality. Kobe suggests to rest at the end and not in the middle. This can apply to workouts, homework assignments, projects, whatever goal you have with a definite end. When we forstall resting and push all the way to the end, we train ourselves in endurance and tenacity but we also get to rest much more peacefully. When we rest at the end, we know the work is over and we can enjoy the much deserved breakrestful rest. When we rest in the middle, we have to get over the activation energy required to start again (which sucks) but we also can’t rest as peacefully because we are anticipating the stress to begin again – stressful rest.

I’ve applied this to my workouts and I’ve gotten better results than when I was resting whenever I felt tired. Make no mistake, it’s painful to rest at the end but it’s worth it. I’ve also applied this to cleaning my room, writing, making music, working, and tons of other places.

In this interview Kobe beautifully lays out the foundation of the world renowned, Mamba Mentality.

Starts at 2:11

Show up every damn day and just do it. Don’t stop until you accomplish what you set out to do. Apply these two principles and skill development is a piece of cake.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

5 More Tips for Better Scheduling

“There are two types of time: alive time and dead time. One is when you sit around, when you wait until things happen to you. The other is when you are in control, when you make every second count, when you are learning and improving and growing.”

Robert Greene (1959 – )

If you haven’t read my other post about scheduling you can find it here -> 5 Tips for Better Scheduling. I believe that scheduling is a skill that needs to be developed over time. Over the years, I have found a few things that work best for me. One thing I love about scheduling is that it’s a metaskill, meaning getting better at scheduling will help with your other skills too! So here are 5 more tips for better scheduling – take what you love and leave what you don’t.

Change Your Repeating Unit of Time

A balanced life, the ideal of many people. But what does it mean to live a balanced life? If we were to take a 24 hour period and divide up the time based on what was important to us, what would that day look like? Most people work an average of 8 hours per day and sleep for the same amount. So if we did the math, after working and sleeping we’re only left with 8 hours for the rest of our lives. How much of that do we want to spend with our families? Or making art? Or watching TV? Or reading books? How much can we actually accomplish in 8 hours? It’s pretty much impossible to have a balance life this way. There are only so many hours in the day. But what if we used more than a day?

We have 24 hours in a day, so in a week we have 168 hours. If we subtract 8 hours per day for sleeping and working, then we are left with 56 hours for the rest of our lives. I find it a lot easier to think about my time in terms of weeks and not days. 56 hours is much easier to work with than 8. Another thing about this scheduling hack that I love, is if the 56 hours still aren’t enough time for you, then you can observe the repeating unit of time as two weeks and you have 112 hours to deal with.

Let me break this down further.

If we considered Monday at midnight to be the beginning of the week, then the middle of the week is Thursday at noon. So don’t stress if the first half of your week is a little unbalanced, you can make up for in during the second half of the week.

Hour Sweet Median Dots (2019) – Christopher S. Mukiibi

A balanced life is a myth (for the most part). Sometimes the key is a paradigm shift and a little self restraint. We can’t live our entire lives in a day, but thankfully we’ve been given more than one.

Internalize Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law comes from Cyril Parkinson’s The Economist, which basically states that:

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

I noticed this whenever I put my assignments off untill the last minute.

It would go something like…my professor would give me 30 days to do an essay. I spend 29 of them (if I’m being honest) doing nothing for the paper. The night before the due date, my anxiety kicks in and my adrenaline fueled hands bust out the 20 page monster in less than 12 hours. Thankfully, I kicked this habit by the time my semester-long chemical engineering senior design project came along – that probably wouldn’t have been finished in 12 hours.

This phenomena is seen all over the world, from people of all ages, and in all fields of expertise. People tend to use up all of the time they plan for something. Most people have an 8 hour workday but don’t need all 8 hours to do their work, yet it takes them 8 hours anyway.

This is why deadline and due dates can be useful. Whenever we see that we are at risk for experiencing something really painful like embarrassment or a misstep, we get down to the really important parts to get our goal accomplished. When we procrastinate the night before a paper is due, we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about which font to use or even which words could best convey our ideas. We just focus on getting the entire paper done as a whole. When it comes down to it, there is something that activates within us, cuts the fluff, and gets shit done.

Set deadline that seems a little too short. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done.

However, beware of the planning fallacy – we aren’t good at predicting how long things will take. Sometimes we will need more time for a project and sometimes we don’t. Parkinson’s Law is not like gravity. It’s more of a rule of thumb that tends to happen if we aren’t being 100% intentional. I have this small theory that this can apply to bags when I pack clothes too or money I budget for a trip, but those are for another time.

Maintain an Impeccable Calendar

When I first started to schedule things, my calendar quickly turned into something that I couldn’t trust. When I got a notification to study or work on a project, part of me wasn’t sure if I really needed to be doing that thing so I didn’t. Over time, my calendar wasn’t reliable and honestly just an extra burden in my life. This is when I found the importance of maintaining an accurate and updated calendar. Scheduling is meant to be a tool to help you, not an extra chore or another “right things to do.” Our calendars can only help if they are reliable, and they can only be reliable if we take time to make sure the inputs are accurate, specific, and updated. If not, they’ll turn into just another hurdle and not only will it be a hindrance in our lives but our calendars could actually make things worse!

So keep a good relationship with your calendar. Trust it and put in the effort to make it something that you trust. It can help keep you on the path.

Nothing is Too Small To Schedule

This is something that took me a little while to really understand. One of my mentors even told me this when I first started using my calendar consistently. I used to just schedule the big things (e.g. lectures, work, client meetings, etc.) and honestly, I thought it was a waste of time to schedule in the small things. I figured, as long as I had the big events covered then I was good. But as the fate of all false perspectives, this wasn’t sustainable over time and I found myself in a worse position. My schedule wasn’t working for me the way it should and I felt more pressure trying to keep it up.

So I took my mentor’s advice and started to schedule the small things like texting my boss back, rewriting a song lyric, or uploading something to the internet. This brought my scheduling game to a new level. My calendar became an extension of myself. Whenever I get the feeling like I’ll forget something, no matter how small it is, I put it right in my calendar. Now, the only time I forget to do something is if I forget to schedule in my calendar. Still human right?

Always Set Alerts – the More Obnoxious the Better

I like to set alerts for when to leave. Smart phones usually update as the traffic changes so we can be alerted when we need to leave a little earlier. This is super helpful (if you trust technology like that). In order to get the notifications to leave and when traffic changes, you must set the location of the event. This goes with the Be Specific as Possible tip from the last scheduling post. Give your calendar as much information as it can and let the technology do the work for you.

Usually, I am 100% against notifications. Notifications are terrible for our productivity and mental health. I have all notifications of my phone shut off except for 2. The notifications constantly grab at our attention forcing our minds to task-switch which prevents us from doing any real deep work or being present.

The 2 notifications I still keep on my phone are when my bank account balance falls under a certain amount and when it is time to leave for the next event on my calendar. The first one is so I can make sure no fishy business is happening with my money and the second is to make sure that I am punctual to my appointments. I like to use the Apple calendar app synced with my gmail account so I can have my calendar on all my devices.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

5 Tips for Better Scheduling

“These things, they take time.”

Gabe Newell (1962 – )

It took me about 3 years before my scheduling skills were good enough to actually rely on my calendar. Today, scheduling is an integral part of my daily life and it’s a skill I’m happy I decided to take some time to develop. With better scheduling came better performances at work and school, plus I was forgetting less and never double booking myself. Here are 5 tips from my years of practice.

A few lessons from years of experimentation and research…

Start by Scheduling High Priority Events First

When I build a schedule, I start by scheduling the highest priority events first. This ensures that I have enough time to get the important stuff done. Everything else comes after. If I didn’t know what to schedule first, I would take some time to reflect on what I would be proud of accomplishing by the end of the day. The famous business consultant, Jim Collins, says “If you have more than three priorities you have no priorities.” Get clear if you aren’t. Open a fresh schedule and start with the important things. During my semesters sessions in college, I’d make sure I would schedule my classes first. Nowadays, when I’m building a new schedule I start with my work schedule on the ambulance since it’s the least flexible commitment I have.

Plan Everything to the End

I cannot even begin to express the amount of half-baked plans that have ruined otherwise great days. From not studying everything I should for my exams to wasting time being bored with my friends, not planning to the end has totally blindsided me time after time.

Robert Greene talks about the utility in planning to the end in his book The 48 Laws of Power, which is on my Must Read List. It’s Law 29 and I highly suggest checking out the whole book, at least that chapter.

It really would have helped if I took the extra 5 to 10 minutes (or even 40 minutes) to bring my plan all the way rather than complacently telling myself “ah, this is good enough.” Planning everything to the end helps with managing overwhelm and gives you a clear finish line. Just the planning to the end in itself (not even executing your plan) is a great exercise in patience and foresight.

Immediately Schedule when a Task will be Done

And by immediately I mean right when you find out you have to do it, schedule it. I like to put it down in some free space for then readjust it to a more reasonable spot once I get a free moment. If done properly, this prevents me from forgetting the little things that slip through the cracks. And as long as I maintain integrity within my calendar, I can consider that task already done. Honestly, I probably open my calendar app more than any other app!

This really helped in college when I was drowning from the flood of assignments. I would always ask myself “Where am I going to find the time to do all of this?” As long as I scheduled something in my calendar, and I knew myself as the kind of person that follows through on my commitments, then I didn’t have to worry about how or when this was going to get done. This little tweak helped me be more present, which allowed me to perform better in classes and have more fun when I was enjoying my leisure time.

Be as Specific as Possible

Set up a time AND place. Be as specific as possible. Leave nothing up to choice when you schedule something. I find that having to make decisions increases resistance.

For example, if I wanted to study I am going to

  • schedule a time I am going to start and stop
  • decide which library to go to
  • which chair to sit in
  • which back-up chair to sit in
  • which subject to study.

When you schedule something, do yourself a favor and make as many of the decisions early on as possible so it can be an effortless process when you’re on the go.

I want to leave as little decisions for Future Chris as possible because he will do anything he can to wiggle out of a less than ideal situation.

Best selling author and social psychologist researcher Heidi Grant Halvorson argues, it is not enough just to articulate what needs doing, it also requires clearly laying out what needs to be done, by who and by when. This is know as If-Then Planning. Halvorson also makes many decisions early on too. Planning the choices that I make has saved me tons of time! This is a huge secret for getting myself to do what I say I’m going to do.

Schedule Entropy Management & Downtime

First, let’s learn a little bit about thermodynamics. There are three (kinda four) main laws of thermodynamics, but we’re just going to focus on the 2nd law for now.

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of the universe, if viewed as an isolated system, increases over time.

So what’s entropy?

Entropy – en·tro·py /ˈentrəpē/ – noun – lack of order or predictability.

The first time I heard of entropy was during the thermodynamics unit in my AP chemistry class. Actually, I was absent that day and my classmate, Matt, explained it to me. He told me the easiest way to think about it is as a measure of randomness. The more entropy there is, the crazier things are. I think its so funny that there’s a way to measure how chaotic something is.

So what does this all mean?

It means everything gets more chaotic over time. This applies to your calendars, finances, grades, anything. Don’t believe me? Just watch what happens to your room if you don’t clean it for a year. You could neglect anything for a month and watch entropy increase indiscriminately.

The natural state of things is that they decay and become more entropic. It is not the default state for things to get better, or ever work properly. So we have to actively maintain the entropic growth that naturally occur in our calendars.

Yportne (2019) – Christopher S. Mukiibi

How do we stop our lives from getting too chaotic?

The best way to manage the chaos is to schedule time to manage it. Since we are aware that things get more chaotic over time, we know that we have to set aside time to restore order.

I literally schedule time in my calendar to clean up any of the inaccuracies or mistakes in my calendar. Just like when we have to do our laundry, clean our rooms, or take showers, we need to set time aside to clean up our calendar so it can help us. I like to schedule in an entropy management (EM) session at least once every two weeks.

Sometimes I have longer time periods when I don’t have an EM session but then I notice my life starts feeling more stressful.

Some quintessential signs that I needed an EM sesh were:

  • feeling like I didn’t have enough time to do everything I wanted
  • accidentally double booking myself or miss appointments
  • forgetting to do my assignments
  • feeling spread too thin
  • feeling like I’m reaching my limits

Scheduling downtime is a concept for the people, like me, who get so excited when working on something that they forget to attend to their other responsibilities. Honestly, sometimes I forget to eat, sleep, or even go to the bathroom when I’m pulled into my zone.

Downtime is a time of inactivity or reduced activity in order to recover and allow better performance for the primary function.

Sleep is a fantastic example of downtime in nature. Our bodies have to rest for roughly 8 hours a day to function properly. There have been plenty of studies done that explain how terrible losing sleep is for us. Creativity is one of the first things to go when we don’t allow ourselves time to rejuvenate, and when we lose creativity, we lose our ability to problem solve. If you are interested in how sleep affects us, I highly recommend checking out Dr. Matthew Walker’s research on sleep. It’s alarming to say the least.

I schedule downtime every single day. I usually have my downtime at the end of the day (after 10pm), but sometimes I’ll take a few moments throughout my day if things run a little ahead of schedule. I like to give myself some contingency time in between my scheduled events. I simply leave an extra 15 (sometimes 30) minutes in between some of the events just account for this.

I’m not as efficient, but it takes real life into account. Sometimes things run a little longer than expected or shit happens and we will need that extra time to make up for it.

Plus, if we don’t have a few extra minutes to enjoy a beautiful moment in our lives, then do we really have a life at all?

This is a skill like everything else and takes a while to become proficient. Remember, it took me 3 years before I could really count on my scheduling skills. The first 3 years were months of me making mistakes and figuring out what works best for me. I’m still tweaking things and developing myself in this skill every day and every day that I do, I am making my life a little easier in the future. Scheduling is for everyone, we just need to figure out what works best for us as individuals.